Officer-Involved: The Media Language of Police Killings
This paper studies the language used in television news broadcasts to describe police killings in the United States from 2013-19. We begin by documenting that the media is significantly more likely to use several language structures - e.g., passive voice, nominalization, intransitive verbs - that obfuscate responsibility for police killings compared to civilian homicides. We next use an online experiment to test whether these language differences matter. Participants are less likely to hold a police officer morally responsible for a killing and to demand penalties after reading a story that uses obfuscatory language. In the experiment, the language used in the story matters more when the decedent is not reported to be armed, prompting a final research question: is media obfuscation more common in high leverage circumstances, when the public might be more inclined to judge the police harshly? Returning to the news data, we find that news broadcasts are indeed especially likely to use obfuscatory language structures when the decedent was unarmed or when body camera video is available. Through this important case study, our paper highlights the importance of incorporating the semantic structure of language, in addition to the amount and slant of coverage, in analyses of how the media shapes perceptions.
The author order has been randomized and recorded on the AEA Author Randomization Tool, with Confirmation ID ‘LPFDU1546yLy’. We are grateful to Mackenzie Alston, Kareem Haggag, Anjelica Hendricks, Dean Knox, Rachel Mariman, Arnaud Philippe, John Rappaport, Martin Salzmann and Jennifer Tamas for helpful comments. We thank Jasmine Carter, JoonYup Park, Caroline Milgram and Adam Soliman, for providing excellent research assistance. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Bureau of Economic Research.